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Her Lehigh education transcends borders

Meredith Aach '08 made quite an impression as a U.S. State Department intern this past summer.

Rafael Correa’s presidency in Ecuador seems to resemble the rule of his personal friend, the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Both presidents established socialist governments in poorer, oil-exporting Latin American countries, and both gained power by encouraging revisions to their countries’ constitutions.

Shortly after taking office in 1999, Chavez initiated a revision of Venezuela’s constitution, and his December 3 attempt to seize more power by another constitutional revision was denied by the voters.

Elected in 2006, the former economics professor Correa called a special assembly to draft a new constitution. On November 29, the assembly dissolved Ecuador’s Congress to grant legislative powers to the assembly and, in the process, strengthening Correa’s rule.

Despite the similarities, Correa is not a second Chavez, Meredith Aach ’08 warned in her memo to the U.S. State Department.

“Correa is viewed with a lens of what Chavez did rather than through Ecuador’s own political and social context,” says the international relations and anthropology major. “Instead we should look at Ecuador for what it is and what he’s doing with the media. This constitutional assembly should be looked at closely to ensure that it is not a fraudulent election.”

Aach studied the political situation in Ecuador last summer as an intern with the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor in the Asian/Western Hemisphere office—a position she obtained with the help of Henri Barkey, professor international relations.

“I think she’s terrific,” Barkey says. “She shows initiative, is a hard worker, takes her studies seriously and cares about people and the issues. I thought she would be a great person to have in the State Department, and it turns out I was right. She did very well there.”

Aach was one of four Lehigh students from among thousands of applicants for a summer 2007 internship at the State Department.

In the middle of the internship, Aach’s supervisor was required to help with a sudden influx of passport applications, and she was promoted to overseeing the Ecuador-Mexico desk.

“I was given more responsibility,” she says. If officials had questions about the countries’ democratic process, human rights abuses or labor issues, they would ask Aach. During her time there, Aach consulted with embassy officials, NGO personnel, other State Department bureaus and many other interests groups throughout the country. She also drew heavily from her personal experience studying abroad in the Latin American country.

“On-the-ground knowledge”

“I was looked at as someone who had on-the-ground knowledge of the situation,” says Aach, who during her four years at Lehigh, has traveled to Chile, Honduras and Ecuador on three separate trips.

In her first year at Lehigh, Aach and her fellow Global Citizens examined globalization during a 10-day trip to Chile over winter break. There she and her classmate spoke with a group of migrant workers. Without formal jobs or permanent homes, these women banded together to form a non-governmental organization (NGO), ANAMURI to petition the government for health care, preserve culture, protect native plants and generate agrarian reform.

“It was truly remarkable that these women who had nothing could form an organization to get their rights recognized,” she says. The trip installed in Aach a desire to study development.

“After I went to Chile and saw how those women were trying to create a NGO, I realized that human rights are such a powerful part of the development,” she says.

The trip also made Aach, then considering an economics major, realize that she was more interested in the human aspect of development than the business angle. The next semester, Aach enrolled in a course on global capitalism taught by Libby Vann, professor of anthropology who now works at Rice University.

"Her class was great," Aach says. "I fell in love with anthropology, but I still had a love for international relations. So I did a double major."

After her sophomore year, she sought an internship in the human resources department of the non-governmental organization, Human Rights Watch, which exposes violations of basic human rights throughout the world.

“I was really interested to see how an NGO operates in the U.S,” she says.

In 2006, Aach continued to explore the process of economic development, this time studying the microfinance industry in Honduras. During a 10-day course, led by Todd Watkins, professor of economics, and Andrea Wuerth, program director with Lehigh’s Martindale Center for the Study of Private Enterprise, she observed the industry and spoke with key people leading it.

A few months later, she delved more deeply into the microfinance industry during her four month study abroad in Ecuador. After around 12 weeks of classes, she spent five weeks examining three different cooperative microfinance institutions that operate close to the Ecuador/Columbia border. Aach interviewed people living in urban, rural and indigenous communities to determine how they perceive the microfinance institutions.

She discovered that the people viewed the institutions as banks rather than social institutions.

“Their goals were social, but the way they achieved those goals limited them from having a social impact that was far-reaching and would truly get them out of poverty because it was only focused on this microfinance organization being profitable,” she says.

This year, Aach plans to discuss the assumptions and limitations of the microfinance industry for her honor’s thesis. As she develops the topic, she consults frequently with the help of Bruce Moon, professor of international relations.

“He’s been really good at guiding me and trying to think about how I can prove my argument,” she says.

After spending her college years examining the international arena, Aach will concentrate on helping those a little closer to home next year. Through Teach for America, she will work in a special education classroom in Washington, D.C. Aach hopes this opportunity will improve her immediate world and will help her explore the possibility of working in domestic policy.

“Not only will I be making an impact on these students, but also figuring out what I want to do along the way,” she says.

--Becky Straw

Posted on Friday, December 21, 2007

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